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portrait of an artist: gayle lynds
spying on the world
by tracey l. kelley (@TraceyLKelley)

It’s no secret: award-winning author Gayle Lynds loves a little cloak and dagger. She’s even written novels under a pseudonym (but if we told you the name, we'd have to...well, you know).

Millions of readers around the world follow the twists and turns of her female protagonists as they flip over the mossy rocks of international espionage. Lynds is one of few women writing this genre. In fact, when she pitched her first novel, Masquerade, in the early 1990s, one publisher rejected it, saying, “No woman could have written this.” It went on to become her first New York Times best seller.

Lynds created the Covert One series with Robert Ludlum, and one of those novels, The Hades Factor, was a CBS miniseries in 2006. Her ninth novel, The Book of Spies, released this month, continues Lynds’ exploration of the mysteries of the world and the people who will stop at nothing to protect them.

You’re intrigued by international espionage. Why?

I’m tempted to quote novelist Philip K. Dick who wrote, “Sometimes the appropriate response to reality is to go insane.” After all, we live in crazy, dangerous, historical times, and maybe I went nuts. But the truth is, I just saw something that fascinated me.

As all of us know, there are two kinds of stools on which we can sit. One has three legs; the other has four. Most people think of the federal government as a three-legged stool--the executive branch, the Congress, and the Supreme Court. But that’s a less-stable stool.

In fact, our government has four legs, and the fourth is seldom acknowledged for what it is. If you guessed the answer is intelligence, you’re correct. Our intelligence agencies--for instance, the CIA, FBI, and DEA--are charged with providing information and analyses to the White House, and it becomes vital in shaping the policy under which we’re governed. It’s an endlessly enticing area about which to write.

Do you think people read books like yours and think, “Yeah, the world is just like this!”, or are the politics and back room deals far beyond what we could even comprehend?

Yes, definitely, they think the world can be just as scurrilous as I portray, and also that it can be far worse. There’s a wonderful old Chinese curse that applies: May you live in interesting times. We do.

You once worked for a private think tank specializing in defense business. Please tell us a little about that.

It was an exciting period in my life. When I was studying at the University of Iowa, the great author Kurt Vonnegut was a visiting professor. I asked him what had inspired him to write one of my all-time-favorite novels, Cat’s Cradle. He said one summer he’d worked at a think tank where the ideas had been bouncing off the walls, and he’d caught one.

Of course I *********, so when my first husband and I moved to California, I went to work as ******** for a private think tank that did a lot of ********** ***************. There were fascinating projects, like making **************, figuring out where to insert *****************, analyzing top secret ****************** (how did we get our hands on that?), and wiping life from **************. Quite the gamut.

In such a Petri dish, not only were the ideas were bouncing off the walls, but also the people. And we had a number of ****************** who came through our doors. (To open the doors, by the way, we had to *********.) There were always water cooler rumors, too. One of them--that our government was conducting highly secret experiments in mind control--inspired my first spy novel, Masquerade.

Peter Cannon of Publisher’s Weekly rated Masquerade as one of the top 15 spy novels, keeping company with works by your mentor and collaborator, Robert Ludlum, as well as Ken Follett and John le Carre. What does it take to make it to the pinnacle of a genre?

Perspiration. A good diet and exercise. Fine mentors. And ignorance. Ignorance in particular is very important. If you don’t know you can’t do it, you often go ahead and do it anyway.

Your new novel, The Book of Spies, is on shelves now. Why will readers be intrigued by this story?

If you like unforgettable characters, high adventure, insider details, and exotic locales like London, Rome, Istanbul, and Athens, you’ll probably like The Book of Spies. Also my two elderly cats, who are completely dependent on me financially, would be grateful if you’d buy the book. You don’t have to read it. You can give it as a gift or donate it and take the deduction. Just please don’t tell me.

The fact is, I love the story, and I think many readers will, too. Here’s a taste: “Emperors, historians, and even the Vatican have spent centuries trying to locate Ivan the Terrible’s real-life Library of Gold--a long-missing archive containing gold-covered, bejeweled books dating all the way back to the ancient Greeks. Finally one of the volumes, The Book of Spies, has surfaced, and along with it the highly secret book club that owns it. Powerful and untouchably rich, the men will do anything to achieve their aims and protect their interests. When the CIA discovers a connection between the long-missing library and terrorist financing, they turn to rare books curator Eva Blake and former intelligent officer Judd Ryder. Somehow they must do what no one else has been able to do--find the library and stay alive.”

Please tell us more about real The Library of Gold.

Imagine it--a collection of some 800 illuminated manuscripts, all covered in gold and embedded with precious gems. The walls are filled with the missing books, the covers facing out, the gold gleaming, the jewels sparkling. Each volume is not only stunningly beautiful, it’s a work of art. Plus these books are the last known survivors of the Byzantine Empire’s fabled imperial library.

After the loss of the great library centers in Alexandria, Athens, and Antioch, Byzantium’s collection was the last hope of the long-ago Western world and contained works gone forever. To think the Library of Gold might be found now, after nearly five centuries, is irresistible.

The Book of Spies launches your first series. What are the pros and cons of writing a series?

A series is easier because you don’t have to create brand-new, fresh, fascinating main characters every time. That’s also the basis of most the problems in writing a series.

Do you think the series would make a good movie, like some of your other works have, or are some stories best left on the page?

I’d love to see a movie made of the series. I’ve long been fascinated by the concept of transforming a work from one medium to another--a painting into sculpture, a sculpture into a poem, a book into a movie. I’d enjoy sitting back and watching the movie folk do their creative thing.

There’s a special character in The Book of Spies named after my husband Matt. How do you build a character around a name?

Usually there’s absolutely no relationship between a name I might use and the character who inherits it. I do try to choose names I find interesting, but that’s as picky as I get.

In Matt’s case, because I know him, my brain played little tricks with me. I worked hard to make the “Matt Kelley” in the book his own person, but when it came time to describe what he wore, I veered a little toward the real Matt--tall, handsome, and sleek, although a decade older:

“A tall man with a warm, lined face, he had looked like the perfect spy in his day, nondescript, dowdy, almost invisible. Now slightly more public, he was able to show his taste. Today he was dressed in a sleek tailored suit and a cuffed white shirt. With his angular face and the hint of predatoriness he once had relied upon, he looked as if he had just stepped off the fashion page of a men’s magazine.”

Are you sure your Matt Kelley wasn’t a real spy in an earlier life?

No, I’m not sure, actually, but it would explain a lot. You do realize his head can’t fit through most doors now, and he’ll be devastated if you kill him off.

I think you and I should be afraid. Very afraid.

You’ve said that you’re always working on the next book--at home, on a plane, on the backs of napkins. Is this process what keeps your creativity flowing?

Creativity is like a muscle. If you exercise it, it gets strong. So yes, my mind may seem to wander, but suddenly I’m involved in a scene, inside the mind of a character, or trying to figure out a new way to kill someone. The challenges are endless.

You’ll be at the Backspace Writers Conference in NYC in May, 2010. If you could condense your workshop down to a paragraph or two, what is your advice to aspiring writers?

I’ll be teaching “You, too, can plot. Really. Insider secrets to creating plots that will make your stories, themes, and characters riveting for agents, editors, and readers.”

I personally find plotting the most difficult aspect of writing a novel. At the same time, I seem to be known for my fine plots. If true, it’s because I was so bad at plotting that I had to work very hard to understand how to do it.

Let’s begin with a basic question. Do you know the difference between story and plot? Most people don’t. Here’s a simple explanation: The story is that a car drives from one end of the bridge to the other. The plot is what happens along the way – a couple decides to divorce, a car goes off the bridge, a dog gets out and scrambles traffic, that sort of thing.

As a novelist, if you can remember that your story is what keeps a book linear, while your plot is what makes it interesting, you’ll go a long way towards teaching yourself to plot. Otherwise, come to New York in May and sit in on my workshop. I’d love to see you there.

*Pick up Lynds’ new novel, The Book of Spies, available Tuesday, March 30th, at fine booksellers everywhere.
*Keep up with her events and appearances.
*Want to be a named character in Lynds’ next book? Watch this space for opportunities and other fun stuff.
*Read more about her collaborations with Robert Ludlum.


Tracey likes to shake things up and then take the lid off. She also likes to keep the peace, especially in a safe, fuzzy place. Writer, editor, producer, yogini, ('cause yoger or yogor simply doesn't work) by day, rabid WordsWithFriends and DrawSomething! player by night. You can follow her on Twitter: @traceylkelley or @tkyogaforyou

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